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Critics' Corner
7 April, 2004  
Portraits on Yellow Paper

Michael Kirby reviews Portraits on Yellow Paper. He likes Simon Fieldhouse’s illustrations, but Roddy Meagher’s text is “marred by unnecessary nastiness”. Roddy is “ever the private school-boy”


Michael Kirby

Portraits on Yellow Paper by Roddy Meagher and Simon
Fieldhouse, published by Central Queensland University
Press, 2004.

Softcover, RRP $25.95 (paperback); $49.95 (hardcover).
Orders by email:

Rarely, if ever, has the departure from the bench of an Australian
judge been accompanied by such attention in the popular press. The
occasion was heralded with the same anxiety as news of the passing of
Charles II. A great fear settled on the land – would the law and the
bench survive Roddy’s retirement?

This book is part of the cornucopia distributed by press agents to
the devouring fourth estate, in sample bags like those at the Royal
Easter Show. Described on the cover as a “parting gift” with “savagely
witty” sketches of its subjects, it is said to illustrate “Roddy’s spirit of
irrepressible mischief-making”. That is one way to describe the text. I
feel sure that others will hold different opinions – including some of the
35 friends and colleagues chosen for “cheerful character assassinations”
and still more those left out.

I hold the copyright over the idea that is now expressed in this
book. However, I take no blame for the text which is solely the work of
the former Judge of Appeal of New South Wales, the Hon R P Meagher
QC LLD (h.c). When we sat together in the Court of Appeal, I would
occasionally relieve a seriously tedious case by sketching my colleagues
in the Court and the more exuberant barristers appearing before us.
Those who find this pastime difficult to believe can read about it in the
essay on me in this collection. Indeed, it is just about the only factually
accurate thing recorded there. By the time we were separated judicially,
I had the portly sketch of R P Meagher down to a tee. Handley JA
always appeared with a halo above his head to mark his manifest
saintliness, a point picked up with typical under-statement in the essay
on him. The declaiming barristers were captured in every mood. I knew
that Meagher JA appreciated, indeed collected, these sketches. It is sad
to read that they were stolen or lost. But in the chaos of his old judicial
chambers, anything could have happened.

I was not asked to supply the likenesses appearing in this book.
Reading the text of several of the entries convinces me that it was
prudent to have missed out. Instead, the fine pen drawings are by
Simon Fieldhouse. They are first class and better by far than my half
remembered efforts.

Judy Cassab, the famous portraitist, told me once (whilst putting a
dab of grey paint where my eye was to be) that getting a likeness of the
human face is a special gift, not afforded to every artist. When very
young, she discovered that she had that gift. Simon Fieldhouse has
hitherto been renowned for marvellous archi tectural drawings. They are
much beloved of lawyers. This is possibly because Simon was himself
once trained in law and offers drawings of legal buildings and scenes,
captured with a brilliant eye for detail. Lawyers tend to like his sense of
order, precision, accuracy and wry humour. Usually, hidden away in
some corner (like Alfred Hitchcock in his movies), is a whimsical form,
occasionally semi-human – just to show that Simon Fieldhouse does not
take the form of things as seriously as might appear. Perhaps like any
good modern lawyer he knows that substance will trump form every
time. Yet, in the past, the human forms in his work have been strictly
incidental. The main purpose has generally been to portray, with infinite
patience, the details of thi s world – bricks, stones, books and things, not

R P Meagher has enjoyed a long friendship with the artist – as he
has with many other people in the arts world. Several of them are
selected for portrayal in this book. But its great artistic merit is that it
illustrates the growing talent of Simon Fieldhouse in capturing the
likeness of human subjects. Some of the efforts are singularly good. I
would mention the portrayal of Meagher himself in full bottom wig, of
Handley in like regalia, of Justice Patricia Bergin of the Supreme Court
of New South Wales, of Dame Leonie Kramer and George Cardinal Pell.
Simon Fieldhouse’s technique is common amongst artists these
days. If his effort on me is any guide, it involves sketches and
photographs, all absorbed into the final product. These are splendid
examples of the draughtsman’s art. It appears that the artist feels most
comfortable with side images – as if unwilling to confront his subjects
face on. My own portrayal looks accurate enough – even kind, especially
by comparison to the text. I am shown facing a rhinoceros which
Fieldhouse draws with Dürer-like accuracy. Naturally, I thought it a
metaphor for confronting ancient and seemingly insuperable odds. An
unkind spark, however, suggested that the words “a hide as thick as”
sprung to mind.

I do not believe that any of the subjects will be upset with their
portrayal by Fieldhouse. The main contours of the personalities are
captured without too many tell-tale wrinkles. For example, Justice
Callinan, a close friend of Roddy Meagher, is portrayed in a benign and
youthful pose, as if someone has got to his visage with a gallon of botox.
Such skills could make the artist even more in demand in wealthy legal
circles and for this newly displayed talent. These are sketches that rise
far above cartoons. They are fine works of an excellent Australian artist.
Just for them it is true to say, as the cover blurb puts it, that “this book is
a collector’s item”.

The text, at least on the legal personages recorded in the book, is
quite another matter. Excerpts from it were leaked to the press in the
weeks and days prior to the author’s judicial retirement. The choicest
bits were published and republished in financial newspapers, building up
a frenzied anticipation of what more could be said at the farewell sitting
of the Supreme Court of New South Wales. Like many others, I thought
it prudent to be present on that occasion. Never has the Banco Court in
Sydney seen such a crush. And the overspilling members of the legal
profession received their money’s worth. The humorous speeches of
Spigelman CJ, Mr Ian Harrison SC (President of the Bar) and Meagher
JA himself set a record in that genre that will probably never be
matched. Some old timers, like this reviewer, muttered that it might be
time to return a little closer to the past balance of solemnity that formerly
marked such occasions. But this was a minority opinion on the day.
As I listened to the humour of the ceremony, I reflected on the
great popularity of Roddy Meagher amongst the New South Wales Bar.
The truth is that he is, and always has been, one of them. He was an
excellent advocate. I know this because he appeared before me prior to
his appointment to the bench. He thought like a judge, even when he
was at the Bar Table. He was nimble of mind. He was witty without
presumption. He knew the winning point, if there was one. He was
conservative, gossipy, but cultured and well mannered. At the ceremony
these virtues were on dazzling display. He tapped the reservoir of male
bonding. In varying degrees, they are present in this book.

The “victims” are mostly the author’s friends and acquaintances
who come to the realisation, early in the relationship, that there is a price
to be paid for Meagherian friendship. Pretty clearly, his great love is art.
He has contempt for the lawyers (including this reviewer) who are not as
passionate about art as he. He recognises that, important as laches,
springing uses and precatory trusts may be, they pale into insignificance
beside the creative arts, and in particular painting, water colours and
drawings. In the Court of Appeal I was the happy beneficiary of the
many masterpieces that he scattered around the Chambers walls. He
chose a portrayal of copulation by Brett Whitely for the wall immediately
outside my Chambers to shock the Protestant Anglican divines who
would visit me there. Justice Mason quickly removed it – doubtless an
explanation for his omission from this book. Like all the author’s friends,
I found it easier to just go along with the mischief.

There are few, if any, unkind shafts in the essays on artists (such
as Margaret Olley, Simon Fieldhouse and the author’s beloved late wife
Penny). The same is true of art publishers (Lou Klepac), arts
administrators (Edmund Capon) and art gallerians (Robin Gibson and
Brian Moore). He is even relatively gentle on politicians (John Howard),
the Cardinal, stray medical practitioners, composers (Terry Clarke and
Ross Edwards) and fellow bridge players.

However, it is when Roddy Meagher turns to his colleagues in the
legal profession that bile can be detected. It is pointless to complain
about inaccuracies over the facts. He suggests, in two places, that I was
an adviser to the Hon E G Whitlam during his government. This and
other factual claims about me are false. Heaven knows the errors about
other people that will now be retold as gospel. There are obvious typos.
Michael Connors is described as a “Paul Haines Fellow” whereas the
distinction in Rotary is named for the founder, Paul Harris – whose fame
has obviously not reached the author’s consciousness. If this is
forgivable, the description, in the essay on Sir Laurence Street, of “A S
Mason” lecturing law students in equity is not. The former Chief
Justice’s middle name is Frank. Yet these are nitpicking concerns.
Several of the descriptions of the lawyers portrayed ring true.
Often, however, they are marred by unnecessary nastiness, usually
directed at someone else. Named judges are portrayed as mediocrities,
as “dullards”, their writings “arid”, their minds incapable of creativity,
their judgments pioneers of “verbless sentences” etc etc. Occasionally
such castigation is humorous, at someone else’s expense. But it
reminds me of some of the writing of Roddy Meagher’s close relative,
the Nobel laureate Patrick White. Meagher reveals that his mother was
constantly distressed that the family was related to Patrick White. He
attacks White’s shafts of personal unkindness. Yet the same traits are
there in his own writing. Perhaps it is genetic. No doubt it helps to sell
books. It seems unlikely to win this author a Nobel prize for literature. It
treads a fine line between verbal cleverness and embarrassing hurt to
people whose good qualities are forgotten as the stiletto is driven home.
Then there is the put down of women. One highly talented woman
is simply “a good sort”. Someone’s current wife is a “pretty little thing”.
Another preaches “never shaving her legs”. These are relics of an old
culture, learned in boys-only schools that dominated the legal profession
for centuries and captured R P Meagher when a youth. As Ian Harrison
said at the farewell ceremony in the Banco Court, such attitudes can
sometimes be an extra burden for women lawyers struggling with a
practice, children and new worlds to conquer. It has always been a
puzzle to me that a man so brilliant and personally kind can occasionally
err in such judgments. It is odd because he always seems most at ease
in the company of women.

There will never be another Roddy Meagher. He would say that it
is contemporary political correctness that breaks the mould of people
like himself. Others would say that it is the application of mind and heart
to the world of others that produces the change of culture. It is therefore
just as well that this book has now been published. Simon Fieldhouse’s
art work is brilliant. Much of the text is interesting, sharp, charming and
pleasingly witty. If there are other parts of the prose that are less
worthy, it is simply the result of the “package” that is Roddy Meagher.
Brilliant and sensitive. Sharp and nasty. Old and wise, but ever the
private school-boy. Gregarious and cultivated. Shy and complex. His
are the features of many legal practitioners in Australia, writ large. The
talents of Patrick White, tamed somewhat (but not very much) by a life in
the law and on the bench.

Whether there is a market Australia-wide for this book remains to
be seen. How they would respond to it in Derby, Tennant Creek and
Temora, where Roddy was born, is doubtful. Whether there will be a
second edition with more “victims” is a subject on many lips. Whether
writs will flow is hotly contested. This is distilled Meagher illustrated by
Simon Fieldhouse in a new phase of his artistic career. Meagher filled
the Banco Court in Sydney to overflowing. The book will quickly sell out.
Purchasers, if they have any sense, will get copies autographed by
author, artist and victims alike. In a decade, it is safe to predict, this
book will either be priceless or forgotten. Lawyers will take it from their
shelves. I am certainly glad to have my copy.